While the scariness of the season may be all too real and in your face to East Coast BroadwayWorld readers due to Hurricane Sandy, late October is indeed the most frightening time of the year, so let's take a look at some of the top picks for Halloween 2012 - whether you are looking to pass some time in the storm, boiling up a cauldron of witch's brew for trick-or-treaters or going out and donning some devilish duds yourself.
AMERICAN HORROR STORY: The Complete First Season - DVD/Blu-ray
GLEE mastermind Ryan Murphy earned 17 Emmy nominations for the first season of his genre-busting anthology horror/thriller series AMERICAN HORROR STORY and watching the positively pristinely presented new Blu-ray set of the series is a joy - or, should I say, a relative joy, given this edgy content. Aping elements from a myriad of influential horror films - in this season's case, ROSEMARY'S BABY, DON'T LOOK NOW and THE SHINING seem to be the foremost influences - Murphy has stitched together a dreamcoat from the disparate elements - actually, make that a nightmare-coat. Eliciting the sort of fear only the truly rare horrorshow can dare to command, AMERICAN HORROR STORY remains consistently compelling over the course of the 13 episode first season, which is no small feat. So, how to maintain that pervasive sense of doom? That's always the trick. The first, contained season of the series acts much like a miniseries - the entire Harmon family story is more or less wrapped up by the season's conclusion - and Season Two, which just began airing on FX earlier this October, is set in a new time and place (a Boston Catholic insane asylum in 1964, mostly) with a whole new assortment of weird, wonderful and worrisome individuals, so, unlike with most series where you jump in and go along for the ride as long as that ride may last, AMERICAN HORROR STORY requires much less of a commitment from the casual viewer. And commitment - or a lack thereof - is undeniably the theme of Season One. After all, where better to begin the whole story of American horror as it exists than with a modern nuclear family in a big old LA (the city of dreams) mansion that may or may not be haunted?
As for the acting, InDepth InterView participant Connie Britton (available here) brings gravity and grace to a role that otherwise could have easily been shrill and unlikable, whereas Dylan McDermott fully embraces the less attractive aspects of his slimy serial cheater character of a husband (while simultaneously occasionally showing off his best, err, assets, too). Evan Peters and Taissa Farmiga warmly glow in their supporting roles as the gloomy, doomed Romeo & Juliet-esque pair, while fellow InDepth InterView participants Denis O'Hare and Lily Rabe show off their considerable skill in two tailor-made period roles sure to linger in the memory long after the final, terrifying frame of the season (and, yes, this show is recorded on film). Stage vets Zachary Quinto and Sarah Paulson, both central figures in Season Two (in vastly different parts), make a magnificent mark with their turns as a bitchy gay ghost and a sketchy fortune teller, respectively. Yet, above all else, the piece de resistance and the true reason d'etre for fans of any genre to see this - and, perhaps, even more, for non-horror fans to see it - is simply to witness the greatest television performance in many a year, given by two-time Oscar-winner Jessica Lange. Just stunning. Portraying a Blanche DuBois-esque Southern belle with more than merely a little Baby Jane Hudson thrown in, Lange ferociously attacks the role with a palpable relish and very apparent glee - this is a great actress in a great role and we all know it, so Lange goes the extra mile every time out to deliver the type of bravura performance you usually only read about happening onstage on an opening night. With Lange on AMERICAN HORROR STORY, every night is opening night. Stage or screen - this is a performance for the ages. Although AMERICAN HORROR STORY is surely strong enough on its own in its writing, directing, production and style to sustain lesser caliber stars than these, maybe even buoy them, the expert casting of these nine actors makes the series required viewing for theatre fans looking for a scare - or ten. Each and every episode is packed with both more subtle scares and outlandishly outright horrors than most horror/thriller/suspense movies produced these days - or ever, for that matter - and I am sure that some of the prurient elements may go too far for some (if you are familiar with Murphy's previous FX mega-hit, NIP/TUCK, you may assume the worst from this), but this is as good - and, in the same breath, as very, very bad (but in the best way) - as TV gets. Plus, Season Two is already on track to match it, beat for beat. Horror with heart.
EXCISION - DVD/Blu-ray
Though in no way intended or recommended for the meek of mind, spirit or heart, EXCISION is the type of breakthrough film from a young filmmaker that makes you sit up and pay attention - and scream, scream, scream and scream again. Told in a dreamy, heightened style, Richard Bates Jr. has crafted a CARRIE for 2012 that is also all its own thing. To give too much of the plot for the slender, 80-minute indie away would be robbing you of some truly terrifying moments, but the story can be basically summed up as a slice of life (ha) as seen through the tortured, troubled eyes of high school misfit Pauline, magnificently played in an entirely vanity-shorn, breathtakingly fearless manner by AnnaLynne McCord (a young star who is perhaps known best for her turn as Eden Lord on NIP/TUCK and on many seasons of the new 90210, though she recently took to the stage, as well, in LOVE, LOSS AND WHAT I WORE). Just as Sissy Spacek made her name more or less with Brian De Palma's CARRIE and Robert Altman's surrealistic 3 WOMEN, so, too, does McCord elicit that magical type of commanding star power that a great actress at the start of her rise to the top of the Hollywood heap can create. She's really got it - and then some. You see, what makes EXCISION so unique is not only its idiosyncratic style and impossible-to-predict story trajectory, but the way it is all played. Sometimes outright black comedy, sometimes high camp, sometimes tongue-in-cheek melodrama, occasionally even heartbreakingly honest and true-to-life, yet always with a foreboding sense of doom and the inkling of harrowing horror right around the corner, EXCISION keeps your rapt attention from the first explosive Ken Russell-like sick surgery fantasy (and all the others - abortion oven included) through to the gritty real world-set scenes, finding its deepest meaning and power in the prayer monologues, which are provocatively framed as McCord's face and clasped hands floating forebodingly in an obsidian enveloping blackness. While this is undoubtedly McCord's film outright and she mines her character for all it is worth, I would be remiss not to note that in a fairer world she would receive a nomination for this - perhaps not an Oscar, but maybe a Golden Globe - but it is simply too hardcore of a horror film, I believe, for that to happen. Former porn queen Traci Lords and THE PRODUCERS star Roger Bart paint memorable portraits of the parents to this monster-in-the-making and some seriously pedigreed talent fill out the roles of the teachers and so-called mentors in Pauline's life, as well, acting as clear proof that this new filmmaker has serious talent worth backing up - Malcolm McDowell, Marlee Matlin, Ray Wise and king of sleaze John Waters among them. Nonetheless, this is McCord's film and she is a star to watch - this is the type of performance you just don't easily forget. I won't. Actually, I would not be surprised to see her tear up the screen (large or small) with Ms. Lange someday and, given the Murphy connection they share, we could very well get the fulfillment of that wish in AHS Season 3. Furthermore, for those on the fence fearing for the worst, I forewarn you that EXCISION is Unrated and should come with every conceivable warning as such - it is hands down the most horrific American film of the new millennium. And, a horror masterpiece.
VAMPS - DVD/Blu-Ray
If AMERICAN HORROR STORY and EXCISION seem a little too horrific for your Halloween festivity viewing this season, a comedy with more than its fair share of bite might be right: VAMPS. Written and directed by CLUELESS and FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH creator Amy Heckerling, VAMPS has not gotten quite the release nor respect that it really deserves. While the all too ubiquitous vampire trend in seemingly all facets of media - books, TV, film, stage - that began roughly with TWILIGHT and TRUE BLOOD a few years ago may have worn down your personal pangs for fangs, VAMPS reenergizes the tried and somewhat tired tropes of the genre by reestablishing them and portraying them in some witty and quite hilariously inventive new ways. Current Broadway star of THE PERFORMERS, Alicia Silverstone ingratiatingly plays a "stem", meaning a human turned vampire, who was originally turned into a bloodsucker by a secretive and insane elder vampire played with panache and flourish by the always enchanting Sigourney Weaver in a rare camp comedy turn. Always looking on the bright side of darkness, Silverstone's Goody is just that - good. She's even a vegetarian vampire, drinking only from rats instead of humans! While more exposition would have been welcome and probably quite enjoyable, the inventive and amusingly designed historical opening sequence expertly sets the scene for this unique vampire world and the overall quite quick pace of the 80-minute film keeps the action flowing, with the story never in grave fear of disintegrating. DON'T TRUST THE B IN APARTMENT 23's Krysten Ritter displays an easy, enlivening rapport with Silverstone and the two are so just-plain-cute together that one wishes the film had received a bigger release so that we could perhaps see them re-team on a sequel or something else someday - truly, comedic chemistry this fine is rarer than virgin's blood. The romantic interest, Joey, is infused with sophistication and panache the type of which only a Brit sophisticate like Matthew Crawley himself, late of DOWNTON ABBEY, could provide, and, indeed, Dan Stevens is effortlessly endearing, sensitively kind and stunningly effective in displaying a mastery of comedy to go with his well-worn good looks and affable, agreeable charm. Many familiar faces pop up in supporting roles, as well, with each given a moment or two to show off their specific comedic skills - Wallace Shawn and Kristen Johnston are guffaw-inducing as the Van Helsings (aristocratic and suspicious parents of Joey), as are Justin Kirk and Malcolm McDowell as two very, very old vampires. The scene you may remember most, though, may very well be the blood sex scene between Kirk and Marilu Henner - I have seen a lot of vampire films, but I've never seen something quite like this. Also, Richard Lewis is agreeable and effective in his turn, though the special effects occasionally let him down - as they do for most in many moments throughout the film. But, so what? There is a certain charm to the bargain basement cheapness of the visual effects. I mean, in a film like this that is oh-so tongue-in-cheek-on-tooth, would you really want the skeleton Sigourney to look any more hi-tech than something from an 80s Sam Raimi project like ARMY OF DARKNESS? I damn sure wouldn't. With charm, heart and laughs to spare, VAMPS is a fang-tastic Halloween treat - and it's definitely worth a blind bite in the (un)dead of night.
V/H/S - DVD/Blu-ray
One final special recommendation I would make to those looking to scare up some Halloween fun, specifically addressed to the absolute most adventurous souls among us - dead and undead - would be V/H/S. A BLAIR WITCH PROJECT-like found footage film for 2012, V/H/S subverts the increasingly hackneyed genre (PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 just topped the box office, after all) in some eye-catching, surprising and quite ingenious ways and the young filmmakers responsible for the project are apparently all talents worth watching out for in the future, near and far. I came to the film completely unaware of what it would contain, so I feel it is best for you to do the same in order for the film to have its ultimate effect, yet I will forewarn you that there is some serious terror and some off-the-wall surprises I guarantee you will not see coming. From vampiric monsters to murderous lesbian lovers to sick religious cults and the trippiest haunted house this side of the Overlook Hotel, V/H/S packs in five seriously scary storylines as well as an edge-of-your-seat (literally, given the old (dead?) man in the chair) wraparound tale centering on some wild guys known for their scandalous snuff-ish internet videos who may very well have met their voyeuristic match. While the shaky camerawork therein that is dictated by the film's conceit may initially dissuade you if you are prone to motion sickness, the way in which the blurry, oft-pixeled effect is rendered in each of the segments is well-considered and, dare I say, justified. Well, you'll see what I mean - or, I guess, you won't. While my personal favorite sequences most probably are the ones by Ti West (writer/director of HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, one of the best recent 80s-style throwback thrillers) and the final two, each segment has its own virtues to enjoy. Featuring a cast of mostly unknowns and up-and-comers, written and directed by a batch of young filmmakers on the rise, V/H/S is precisely the horror film for those who want something new, scary, fun and unique, but still want to be able to hold down some candy, too, all the while, which is a promise I cannot make to most who have seen or are about to see EXCISION. While in no way are the segments in V/H/S equal in their effect and their subsequent success in execution of their themes and ideas, each provides a worthwhile scare - and, in the case of a few sequences, more terror than you may be able to handle, even with a handheld camcorder capturing it all. But, if it doesn't show up on the tape it's not real, anyway, right… right?!